, MILAN, May 31 – Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi\’s trial on charges of having sex with an underage prostitute resumes on Tuesday, a day after his centre-right coalition suffered a crushing defeat in local elections.
Berlusconi himself will not attend the hearing, where his lawyers are expected to challenge the court\’s right to hear the case.
The 74-year-old is accused of having last year paid for sex with Moroccan-born Karima El Mahroug, better known as "Ruby the Heart Stealer", when she was 17.
He is also accused of abuse of power for having allegedly pressured police to have her released from custody when she was arrested for theft.
He has denied all the charges, accusing prosecutors of plotting against him.
Berlusconi faces several years in prison but is unlikely to face jail time even if convicted due to sentencing guidelines in Italy for over-70s.
His lawyers say the prime minister will not be present at what will be only the second hearing of the case after the trial opened in April.
Berlusconi is attending a bilateral summit in Romania on Monday and Tuesday.
The trial comes at a very sensitive time for the billionaire tycoon. His People of Freedom party suffered defeat in local elections on Monday, losing control of Milan to the left for the first time in 18 years.
Left-wing lawyer Giuliano Pisapia triumphed in Milan with 55.10 percent of the vote against incumbent mayor Letizia Moratti\’s 44.89 percent.
In Naples, which was already controlled by the left, Luigi De Magistris, a former prosecutor, also defeated his rival with 65.37 percent.
The centre-right lost other votes in Cagliari, Novara and Trieste but the defeat in Milan — Italy\’s economic capital — was seen as the most symbolically significant and a bellwether for anti-Berlusconi sentiment.
Berlusconi had actively campaigned on Moratti\’s behalf and declared the vote should be seen as a test of his popularity, which has been falling after a series of legal and sex scandals and continued weakness in the economy.
"I think the will for change is a signal for the entire country…. Berlusconi has become obsessed in recent years with his own affairs," Pisapia said in an interview with news channel SkyTG24 after his victory.
From Romania, Berlusconi acknowledged defeat but remained combative, Italian news media reported.
"We lost. It\’s clear. But now we have to remain calm and move forwards. The majority is determined and united," he said.
"Every time I suffer a setback, I triple my forces," he said.
Analysts say the defeat will put pressure on the coalition between Berlusconi and the Northern League party, which has shown signs of growing disenchantment with the prime minister\’s leadership in recent weeks.
"It\’s a personal defeat for Berlusconi…. We can say that Berlusconi\’s time is up," said Marc Lazar, a French professor specialising in Italian politics.
Lazar warned that the partnership with the Northern League would be "more uncertain" but said the vote would not bring down the government.
"It\’s a major shock for the governing coalition," he added.